It was 4:30 am and I was on a barge in Alaska.
I was groggy from the early hour and not looking forward to the day to come.
I walked outside my room to put on my galoshes before I headed to the factory. We had to keep our boots in the hall at night otherwise, they would stink up our room. As I pulled my galosh onto my foot, I felt cold water seep through my sock, engulfing my foot. I quickly took the boot off to inspect what had gone wrong.
It was pee.
There was pee in my galosh. It was early morning and there was pee in my mother loving galosh.
It was the summer I turned 20 that my best friend and I had the bright idea to go to Alaska and work at a salmon factory.
We had heard from other people that you could make a good amount of money in a season packing salmon. We understood that the work was going to be tough, but we were young and up for anything. I had always wanted to see Alaska and this was a way for me to see it and get paid at the same time. Bonus.
Hot damn! It turned out to be a terrible idea!
Of course it was. I was a vegetarian going to pack salmon. This would have been a good first clue that it was not a good idea.
It was the first day on the job and the factory was cold, wet and smelled just as you might expect a factory full of dead fish to smell. We had our galoshes, our waterproof overalls, our raincoats and our hairnets. We were ready to roll.
There were two sizes of cans that our plant packaged with salmon—a big can and a small can. I was put on the big can assembly line.
The conveyor belt started and I was nervous. The big cans of salmon were coming my way and I couldn’t stop it from happening. I was in position and if I left, the whole line would get backed up.
The cans were coming, and as they approached I saw nothing but salmon heads sticking up out of the cans.
It was my job to either push the heads down far enough so that the lids could be clamped down on the can or take out excess so the lids would fit. When I pushed the heads down, there was this awful squishing noise of water and little broken bones.
Yes, I had to break dead salmon bones to make them fit in a can.
It was atrocious.
It took me exactly one can before my mind was made up that I had to be transferred to the small can line.
I talked to my boss and told her that I couldn’t do it. I pulled the vegetarian card and told her that I could do the small cans, but I could not work the salmon heads all day. She replied that I should have thought about it more before signing up for the job. I agreed and she reluctantly made the transfer.
I spent the rest of my time at the factory working on the small can line which was still horrible, though, not as horrible as the salmon heads looking up at me.
My new job was fill the cans to just the right weight. The machine that dumped the salmon into the cans wasn’t calibrated right because 9 out of 10 cans that came down the line had to be adjusted.
I had to work fast too, because if too many cans backed up, the conveyor belt would jam, and production would have to stop. No one liked it when production had to stop.
This is the perfect segue to tell you about my co-workers at the salmon factory.
My best friend and I were the minorities in the factory. We were the only Americans working the line. Most of the other workers were women who came to Alaska from the Philippines,
They would came to Alaska every season to do this work. This is how they supported their families and it was their main source of income for the entire year. This job was their bread and butter. They were serious about it and took it with extreme gratitude and care.
And then there was me.
As much as I wanted them to like me, I didn’t blame them for not. I probably took one of their friend’s job’s, someone who really needed it and here I was just wanting to see Alaska and try something different for the summer.
There I was on the small can line, my salmon cans backing up and an entire factory of women shouting at me to “work faster, work faster, work faster!!”
A 20-year-old American vegetarian who couldn’t deal with stuffing fish into a can.
Needless to say, I was not well-liked by my co-workers. So much that they peed in my work boots.
I took a job from someone else who really needed it. I was just there to see Alaska and try something different for the summer.
The summer proceeded to go downhill until my best friend and I made the decision to leave Alaska early.
My boss was angry when we told her we were leaving early. “You will never be able to work here again if you leave,” she said in her thick New Zealand accent. We told her that we had taken that into account when we made our decision and we were sticking with it (though, what I wanted to say was, “That’s exactly the point!”).
We booked it for the next ferry out and made our way to Washington.
I left Alaska with galosh rot and a new understanding of hard work.
More importantly, I left knowing that I would continue to be a vegetarian (and eventually vegan) and that I wanted to help as many people eat vegetarian as I could because a salmon factory is no place for humans or salmon.
It was part of the path that led me to eventually open vegan restaurants, coach people how to eat better, write vegan cookbooks and lifestyle books and develop clean eating programs.
It was a smelly lesson but I am grateful for it and ultimately, better off.
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Apprentice Editor: Carrie Marzo / Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Dana Styber / Pixoto